Friday, October 28, 2011

Bob Crane's Hometown: Stamford, Connecticut - Circa 1946

These photos are a series of screen shots from the 1947 film noir, Boomerang, starring Dana Andrews, Lee J. Cobb, and Jane Wyatt. Filmed on location in Stamford, Connecticut, the movie opens with a fantastic panoramic, 360-degree view of downtown Stamford.

This is how Stamford looked during the 1940s and how Bob Crane would have remembered his hometown. It was a bustling town and full of activity, where everyone knew everybody else. Stamford is where Bob grew up, attended school, graduated from high school, played in jazz bands, served in the National Guard, married his first wife (Anne), and spent the majority of his youth and young adult years.

You can learn more about Stamford's rich history by visiting the Stamford Historical Society's Web site. And if you have not watched Boomerang, it is highly recommended that you do! 

Old Town Hall on the corner of Atlantic and Main Streets, The church
spire for St. John's Roman Catholic Church is visible to the left.
Bob Crane's father worked in C.O. Miller's Department Store,
once located directly behind Old Town Hall on Bank Street.
Stamford, Connecticut, circa 1946.

Atlantic Street facing north and away from Old Town Hall.
Stamford, Connecticut, circa 1946.

Main Street facing east and directly across from Old Town Hall.
Park Row is to the left. This section of Main Street and Park Row no
longer exists. It is now the site of the Stamford Town Center
Stamford, Connecticut, circa 1946.

Main Street facing east and across from Old Town Hall.
Finlay Straus Jewelers, where Bob Crane worked from 1946 to 1950
as a watch repairman and salesman, had been located on the right side
of Main Street, about where you see the telephone pole. This section of Main
Street no longer exists. Today, it is the site of the entrance ramp to the
Stamford Town Center.
Stamford, Connecticut, circa 1946.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

'Arsenic and Old Lace' - ABC, 1969 / With Bob Crane, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, and Fred Gwynne

By Carol Ford

Promotion of Arsenic and Old Lace,
The Hollywood Reporter,

Wed., April 2, 1969.
The classic comedy-drama, Arsenic and Old Lace, originally written for the stage by Joseph Kesselring, depicts a day in the life of television critic Mortimer Brewster, who has just become engaged to Elaine Harper. Eager to share this happy news with his somewhat off-beat (and unbeknownst to him, occasionally murderous) family, he introduces Elaine to them.

Trouble begins for poor Mortimer from almost the moment he steps into the old, Victorian-style, eerie but outwardly cheery New England house, where his two spinster aunts reside with his psychologically challenged uncle. Before everything is all said and done, Mortimer discovers his aunts' macabre secret, attempts to cover it up, and is held hostage and almost killed by his brother, all while trying to justify his unfortunate relationship to these wildly eccentric and often dangerous people. If Mortimer has any advice for the world, it's don't look in the window seat and don't drink the Elderberry wine.

Bob Crane with Fred Gwynne, Lillian Gish, and
Helen Hayes in the 1969 ABC movie,
Arsenic and Old Lace.
Originally starring Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane, the 1944 movie adaptation directed by Frank Capra was a smash hit with audiences, even though Cary Grant confessed to hating the movie and regretted making it. More than two decades later, ABC remade the film for a 1969 Movie of the Week. This latter version, directed by Robert Scheerer, stars Bob Crane in the leading role of Mortimer Brewster, the increasingly confused nephew of the sweet but murderous Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha, played by Hollywood screen legends Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish. Sue Lyon costars as Mortimer's pretty fiance, and Fred Gwynne (of The Munsters fame) was appropriately cast as the criminal brother, Jonathan Brewster, who enjoys dabbling in the art of human butchery. Jack Gilford portrays Jonathan's sidekick, Dr. Jonas Salk (renamed in this adaptation), and David Wayne appears as Uncle Teddy, who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt.

Unlike the 1944 major motion picture with Grant, the 1969 version was performed as a theatre production and filmed almost entirely onstage. There are two main sets in the 1969 remake: the grand living room and the kitchen, with only a handful of scenes filmed outside and off-stage. Following the production, there is a curtain call by the cast, and the camera pans the applauding audience as the actors take their bow as they would after any theatre performance.

Bob Crane with Sue Lyon.
Arsenic and Old Lace, 1969.

The 1969 film was met with mixed and sometimes poor reviews. It seemed impossible to review this version without comparing it to the 1944 classic or screen giant Cary Grant. Modern critics further claim it bears too much of an ominous foreshadowing to Crane's own 1978 murder to be enjoyed.

Having recently watched the 1969 film, now more than forty years after its debut, I agree that some of that criticism is warranted. For example, the opening scene in a flashy dance club seems completely out of place with the rest of the film, and it's even difficult to hear Crane and Lyon exchanging their lines. The film editing is also not the best, and it bears all the choppiness one might expect of a late-1960s, low-tech production. Finally, it is difficult not to think of Bob Crane's gruesome murder when Mortimer nearly faces the same fate.

However, I also find the general dislike of the film by critics to be a bit harsh. When you look past these surface flaws and sad irony, and study the performance itself, what you see is a hidden gem. This 1969 film is not a late-night, made-for-TV flop; it is archived footage of these actors performing live, on stage, in front of a theatre audience - as they would have performed had they been on stage in any theatre production. And that, my friends, is almost impossible to come by. 

Bob Crane, Helen Hayes, and Lillian Gish rehearse
a scene for Arsenic and Old Lace.
Bob Crane starred in many theatre productions since the 1950s, including Cactus Flower, Send Me No Flowers, 6 Rms Riv Vu, Tunnel of Love, and Beginner's Luck, and he earned high critical praise for his performances. He had his sights set on Broadway, and at the start of his first summer theatre tour (Cactus Flower) in 1969, Crane admitted, "I'm hopeful it will serve as a springboard on Broadway." Watching Crane in this performance of Arsenic and Old Lace provides us with a glimpse of his stage talents, which he continued to hone until his death.

Upon learning he had won the part in Arsenic and Old Lace, Bob was overjoyed and humbled at the prospect of working with Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish. In a TV Guide article, he noted, "If someone had said to me, before it happened, would you like to work with Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish, I'd have said they were joking!" Bob also took the advice of Hayes, who had encouraged him to expand his acting style by appearing in more movies and stage plays during his summer hiatus from Hogan's Heroes. Hayes, who thought very highly of Bob, stated in the same TV Guide article, "I watch Hogan's Heroes regularly. This young man, Bob Crane, is a wonderful farceur, and there are almost none of them around anymore. He's habit-forming."

As for the 1969 ABC adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace, it is extremely difficult to find. Hopefully, ABC will one day release the film on DVD. This film is a rare treat, and one that I encourage you to discover.

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Efron, E. (1968, August 3). Think John Wayne. TV Guide, pp. 25-27.
Pullen, G.C. (1969, June 8). Hogan's hero has eye on future. Plain Dealer.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bob Crane - Drums Along the Radio Studios

Bob Crane playing drums in his dressing room on
the set of Hogan's Heroes. Wherever Crane went,
his drums went with him.

If you were living in Southern California between the years 1956 and 1965, you most likely tuned into The Bob Crane Show over KNX during the morning drive-time hours. More often than not, Crane would play drums along with various records, and the louder and faster the song, the better! Academy Award-winning producer and acclaimed public speaker "Toastmaster General" George Jessel once said to Bob during a KNX interview, "I'm fascinated by what you're doing - just what it is that you're doing, I don't know. But I've never seen so much action in my life. Drums, and he's got all sorts of things over his ears, and concoctions. He looks like...I'm trying to think of what he looks like." Musician Pat Boone, also in the studio that day, added, "He looks like an astronaut" (regarding Crane's headset), after which Jessel joked, "Either that, or a Jew who has gone mad!" (To listen to this interview, click here.)

KNX staff who worked with Crane have equated watching his show to watching a spectator sport. He was non-stop, grabbing for a record, playing a tune, drumming along with that tune, going right into a commercial and from there into a skit, then back to the commercial again. Further, he could locate a specific track within any given album with split-second accuracy, just in time to insert that 3-second cough or voice or other gimmick before moving on to the next thing. This was before cassette tapes and long before digital media. He had to know and locate each track precisely - which he did.

It was not unusual for Bob to have a set of drums with him in the KNX studios. He had worked his drumming into his radio programs on the East Coast, and later, as an actor, he would keep a drum set in his dressing rooms. For the nine years he spent at KNX, however, his drumming was a show staple.

In this clip, Bob drums along with a classic tune from My Fair Lady, "Get Me to Church on Time," performed by Van Alexander and the Band. Crane's drumming comes through loud and clear, and this is a terrific example of his ability to incorporate his musicianship into his radio program. Unfortunately, there are a few seconds of "dead air" toward the end, but it comes back fairly quickly. Enjoy!

"Get Me to Church on Time" from My Fair Lady
Van Alexander and the Band (Bob Crane on Drums)
The Bob Crane Show / KNX-CBS Radio
March 9, 1962

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Commercial Break! Columbia Records - March 1957

It isn't unusual for a DJ or radio personality to read a commercial from a sponsor, whether live or recorded. For Bob Crane, however, commercials were just another avenue to include gimmicks, sound effects, or voices. In the clip presented here (scroll to bottom of post), Crane promotes a new offer from Columbia Records, only to have his sidekick, "Charlie," objecting to the type of music Columbia is trying to sell. 

Why would a company even bother buying air time when it knew the product or service was fair game for a hearty roasting?

The beauty of Crane's style of humor is that it got people to listen. How many times do you change the radio station when a commercial comes on? Or in broader terms, fast forward through your DVR to skip the commercials? Probably quite frequently. These days, perhaps the only time we choose to watch commercials is during the SuperBowl. Why? Because they are clever, different, and often funny.

On Bob Crane's radio show, listeners stayed put to hear the commercials on a regular basis. They wanted to hear the advertisements because they never knew what Crane might do next. He made people laugh, and for that, advertisers rarely backed out, but instead, paid top dollar to be on Crane's show. It doesn't matter what time or place or medium. If you can get people to want to watch or listen to commercials, that's genius. And that is the word so many of Bob Crane's radio colleagues have used to describe him.

Columbia Records Buy of Broadway Commercial
The Bob Crane Show / KNX-CBS Radio
March 27, 1957

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Commercial Break! The 1964 Rambler Convertible

The Rambler, manufactured mostly during the 1950s and 1960s by American Motors Corporation (AMC), was one of the most popular vehicles of its time. In 1963, the full Rambler line received the Motor Trend Care of the Year award. It ceased production in 1969, and in 1987, AMC was purchased by Chrysler. It became the Jeep-Eagle arm of the Chrysler Corporation, which continued to manufacture the Jeep Cherokee line started by AMC.

This radio spot features the 1964 Rambler convertible as it was promoted over The Bob Crane Show in May 1964.

1964 Rambler Convertible Car Commercial
The Bob Crane Show / KNX-CBS Radio
May 1964

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bob Crane / Keenan Wynn KNX Interview - 1964

Keenan Wynn (third from left), in a scene with
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in
the 1965 classic film, The Great Race.
Keenan Wynn, born Francis Xavier Aloysius James Jeremiah Keenan Wynn on July 27, 1916, in New York City, was a fine theatre and character actor of the 1940s through the mid-1980s, having appeared in numerous films and stage productions throughout his career. Son of vaudevillian and later character actor Ed Wynn, he appeared in countless films, including Dr. Strangelove; Annie Get Your Gun; The Absent-Minded Professor; Herbie Rides Again; Kiss Me, Kate; Finian's Rainbow; Once Upon a Time in the West; and The Great Race; among others. His television appearances include The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford; The Troubleshooters; Dallas; Call to Glory; and many more. He also provided his voice talents to Rankin-Bass and brought the Winter Warlock to life in Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. Keenan Wynn passed away on October 14, 1986, from pancreatic cancer.

As a guest on The Bob Crane Show over KNX in the spring of 1964, Keenan Wynn talked with Bob about his father. In this segment of the interview, he explains how the elder Wynn seemed to have a penchant for ignoring what would have been some profitable investments!

Bob Crane / Keenan Wynn Interview Segment
The Bob Crane Show / KNX-CBS Radio
Spring 1964

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Stamford High School Class of 1946: The Spirit of '46

This past weekend, it was my honor and privilege to attend Stamford High School's 65th class reunion in Stamford, Connecticut, as a special guest. On Sunday, October 2, 2011, fifty-seven of Bob Crane's high school friends and classmates from the Class of 1946, along with their guests, gathered at the Italian Center in Stamford to catch up, have fun, and reminisce. 

The Stamford High School Class of '46 had been large, with 537 seniors graduating on June 5, 1946 - Bob Crane being one of them (despite sources that allegedly claim he "dropped out of high school"). A strong-spirited, close-knit, and determined group, they grew up during the Great Depression and went through their high school years during the entire span of World War II. These members of "The Greatest Generation" were the first class from Stamford to graduate after the official end of the war. Now all in their early 80s, their numbers have dwindled and their bodies have aged, but their collective spirit still shines bright.

Their memories of Bob are fond, some reaching back to elementary school days in the 1930s, when they were about five years old. Walking to school, singing songs, playing baseball or football, and oh! Those drums! Wherever Bob went, the drumsticks went with him.

Bob Crane's High School
Graduation Portrait.
Courtesy of Stamford
High School.
In junior high school, Bob and some of the neighborhood kids formed a jazz band. By the time they got into high school, the band was going strong, and it was a staple at all school assemblies. The band, which was named the Catino Band and later, in Bob's senior year, the Crane-Catino Band, would also play for functions and gigs throughout Stamford, Greenich, Norwalk, Darien, and other surrounding Connecticut communities.

Bob's school friends remember him as a happy, good-natured kid; a bit reserved yet always ready with a quip to make them laugh; a caring individual with a sensitive side who would worry if he hurt someone's feelings; extremely talented, especially in music; and someone with a "sunny personality" who they enjoyed being around and who they knew would achieve his goals. When he became a terrific success in radio and later "made it big" on Hogan's Heroes, they celebrated hugely.

In June 1976, Bob flew back east to his home town of Stamford, where he attended his 30th class reunion. Happy, eager, and full of energy, Bob had enjoyed every second of his time with his school friends. He beamed with school-boy giddiness as he circulated among his peers; they, in turn, adored their "drummer boy" and were overflowing with pride at all his accomplishments.

Bob Crane performing in the jazz band during
a Stamford High School class assembly in 1945.
Courtesy of Stamford High School.
It was the last time Bob and most of his school friends would see each other, for just two years later, he would be found murdered. His classmates had been stunned and greatly saddened when they learned of their friend's death. It was unfathomable to them that their happy-go-lucky friend and classmate who had always been so full full of life would have been the victim of such a horrifying crime or been caught up in something that most likely led to his untimely death. Realizing Bob had been seeking professional help at the time of his murder, they only wish he had done so sooner, which may have prevented the tragedy from occurring. Despite scandalous media hype in print and on screen, to this day, numerous members of the Class of '46 remain proud of their drummer boy and do not hesitate to stand up for him. They want people to know: "Bob Crane was a good guy."

Having gotten to know so many of Bob's school friends over the years, it was certainly a wonderful personal experience for me to see them as a group - as the Stamford High School Class of 1946. I am most grateful to the two class members - Charlie Zito and Jane Golden - who extended the invitation to me and asked if I would attend as their special guest. All of these elder yet beautiful souls have wrapped themselves around my heart while granting me the rare opportunity to time travel to a point in history when they knew Bob Crane as a fellow classmate, when they were all young and full of hopes and dreams, and when their adult lives were just about to begin.

Above: The Stamford High School 1946 Graduation Program. 
Bob Crane's name appears as a graduate in the right column.
On file at the Stamford Historical Society, Stamford, CT.
Click once on each image and then again in the new window 
for a higher resolution version for easier reading.

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This post is dedicated to Charlie Zito.